Michael Pascoe: Weasel words and gaslighting at Rugby Australia

The Wallabies’ World Cup woes can be traced to off-field upheaval, Michael Pascoe writes.

The Wallabies’ World Cup woes can be traced to off-field upheaval, Michael Pascoe writes. Photos: TND, Getty

There’s often a precarious relationship between a chairman and CEO – or Wallabies coach.

Appointing the CEO (or coach) is about the most important thing a chairman does. If the CEO (or coach) fails, it tends to mean the chairman has failed – and nobody likes to admit failure, particularly given the egos that usually attend the top of the board table.

In the process chairmen are regularly captured by their CEO, despite the chairman theoretically being the CEO’s boss. The captured chairman has a tendency to overpay the CEO, to be blind to problems as they build and then deny any complicity when those problems inevitably hit the fan.

Australia has been watching that scenario play out at Qantas. The Australian rugby union community is now watching it play out with the Wallabies.

In the wake of the Wallabies emperor being shown to have no clothes last weekend, Rugby Australia is indulging in an embarrassing mix of weasel words and gaslighting.

And, as usual, it’s the cover-up that proves more damning than the original mistake, that destroys trust and makes continuing impossible.

Results reversal

The Wallabies have demonstrably gone backwards since Dave Rennie was rudely sacked as coach and Eddie Jones appointed with circus hoopla. That’s on the scoresheet and in the “vibe”.

Coach Jones promised he would pull off a “smash and grab” victory at the Rugby World Cup. Only the first part has been delivered – the Wallabies certainly were smashed by Wales on the weekend.

That happens sometimes in sport. It’s not Sunday’s scoreline that has made the coach’s position untenable – it’s the combination of the scorelines, the unfathomable selections, the chopping and changing that has generated instability, the disrespect of players, the manner of the team’s defeats, the lack of the team’s progress, and the gaslighting about the performance and outlook that combine to make Jones’ position unsustainable.

Coach Jones’ claim that all remains on track, that we’ll win the next World Cup and be competitive against the British and Irish Lions, has become the stuff of comedy.

Irish impressionist Conor Moore scores because he’s so close to the bone.

(On Sunday night in Lyon, there was booing in the stands when Eddie Jones was on the big screens. Initially, it seemed to be the Welsh fans. By the end of the game, not so much.)

But even all that is not what means Jones needs to go quickly and take his chairman with him.

Job interview

It’s the ongoing weasel words used by Jones about a job interview with the Japanese rugby union and those weasel words being repeated and supported by the Rugby Australia chairman, Hamish McLennan.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Tom Decent broke the story before the weekend that Jones took part in a Zoom call interview about coaching Japan next year.

Jones has not denied the story. All he has managed when questioned about it is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, mate”.

The rugby press generally welcomed the appointment of the colourful character with the sharp tongue – he made for plenty of good copy when Dave Rennie was quiet and sombre to the point of being boring from a journalistic point of view.

Now previous Jones fan Peter FitzSimons wants him gone immediately and the SMH chief sports writer’s coverage is headlined: “How can Rugby Australia trust Eddie Jones ever again?”

And where is Coach Jones’ theoretical boss on this? He is in denial.

The SMH reported on Tuesday that McLennan still hadn’t spoken to Jones about the job interview.

“I haven’t spoken to Eddie directly about it. But Waughy (Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh) did and we are taking him on his word and he said there is nothing in it.”

What is the “it” that there is nothing in?

It is not the chairman’s job to “take his word on it” but to find out exactly what the “it” was and deal with “it”.

No regrets

The Jones appointment was very much McLennan’s call – a Hail Mary pass when the Wallabies were getting excruciatingly close to winning big matches (they lost to Ireland and France, the world’s No.1 and No.2 teams, by three and one points respectively in November in Dublin and Paris) but falling short.

Under Dave Rennie, the Wallabies defeated Wales 39-34 in Cardiff 10 months ago – and the coach was dealing with the worst injury toll in Wallaby history.

Under Eddie Jones, Wales thrashed Australia 40-6.

But chairman McLennan has no regrets and thinks he and Coach Jones are doing the right thing.

“I feel I am making calls that are well intended and for the good of the game, including winning the 2027 and 2029 Rugby World Cups for Australia, which will be transformative,” McLennan said.


Rugby Australia owes Dave Rennie and several fine Wallabies a genuine apology. It looks like the current chairman is incapable of doing that.

As for the future, as opined in this space before, Rugby Australia needs a 10-year plan, not a 10-month wish.

There are immediate structural issues in need of fixing the way Queensland’s David Nucifora helped fix Irish rugby union, but both the long and the short-term issues require honesty and trust – not weasel words and gaslighting.

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